I mentioned on last episode’s Galactic Suburbia that I’m reading a lot of nonfiction at the moment. It’s quite weird for me as I haven’t really read nonfiction for fun in a few years. It’s going through a bit of a reassessment of aspects of my life and my reading is one of them. Basically, I’ve discovered you don’t have to force yourself to do or like things and that (revelation ahead) if you choose not to, you are much happier. Sounds obvious, and yet, not actually how I was running my life for the last decade or more. And so I realised that the reason I’m not finishing books is I am not reading the books that I need to be reading right now – are you a mood reader like me? I have to be in the right frame of mind for certain books and it’s why I tend to travel with more books than I can read in case I’m not in the mood for some. And right now, nonfiction, and nonfiction about craft, seems to be really appealing to me.
In Sweater Quest, Adrienne Martini spends a year trying to knit an Alice Starmore jumper. If you’re a knitter, you already know about the complexity of the fair isle and the holy grail that is the Alice Starmore projects. And if you’re not, you probably don’t really care. So suffice to day, in some ways this challenge is akin to the Julie Julia cooking project. And I kinda like me a craft related quest. Maybe if epic fantasy involved some kind of quest across country for maiden silk yarn, I’d like relate more?
This book is written in a very friendly tone – similar to the way online knitting blogs are written. Again, if you’re a knitter, you know what I mean, and if you’re not, well, knitters are pretty tech savvy and have many an online community. Because of course, knitting is deeply fascinating but noone said knitters didn’t love to bond over more than just the gorgeous yarn and pattern you’re working on right now. In Sweater Quest, we get to know Adrienne and a bit about who she is as a knitter and a person.
I enjoyed the quest to knit the Starmore but what I enjoyed even more were the truly crunchy questions Adrienne’s journey threw out. The thing about the Starmore is, according to Alice Starmore, you can only knit a Starmore if you use her specified yarn and colour combinations. If you deviate, she (and her lawyers) might just ask you to not call it a Starmore. And the problem is, they don’t actually make the yarn for many of her older patterns anymore. If you aren’t aware of the Starmore controversies and you like yourself a bit of internet drama, then this book is a great introduction to some of the goings on from the early 2000s and will point you in directions to chase up a bit more of that story.
Adrienne goes on a journey, both in writing her book and physically as she visits lots of the big name online knitters, asking the question, if she isn’t using Starmore yarn (she had to substitute one or two as she couldn’t chase down all of them), is she knitting a Starmore at all? I don’t know that I every really felt like I got an answer to that question. But I loved the thinking beyond that – a designer dreams up a knitted item and writes the pattern, knitters tend to pick that up, change the colour and/or the yarn brand, maybe change the cable here or there, add length, reduce length, change the collar or the sleeve… at what point does the end product no longer resemble the intent? When is it no longer the pattern? And more than that, what does a designer own?
I loved thinking these ideas over in terms of how they translated to writing and publishing and plagiarism. But I also loved the ideas as they applied to knitting. For years, I have been laughing at new knitters online who would never even have thought that you could look at a pattern and knit it in red instead of yellow – that they would hunt around for red jumpers if that’s what they were intending to knit, rather than find a pattern they liked and then just change the colour of the wool. Here in Australia, it’s only been really recently (and even more recent here in WA), that the yarn brand specified in the patterns was available to buy, let alone the colour. We are used to substituting not just the colour but the yarn and thus swatching before knitting is obviously a must (nonknitters – first you must work out how the yarn knits out – in terms of tension and so on – by knitting a square of a set number of stitches and then comparing the resulting dimensions to those of the pattern to figure out if you have to add or subtract stitches to be able to knit the resulting size garment). Basically, we are used to *not* using the same colours or yarn brand for knitting. So for me, the idea of Starmore’s, that to knit her jumpers you had to use her wool, was mindboggling. And before the internet and ebay, basically meant you would never be able to knit her work at all.
I dunno that I’ve finished thinking through a lot of the ideas from this book. I really enjoyed the food for thought. Recommended to my knitting geek friends.
Mirrored from Champagne and Socks.
I heard Connie Willis talking about her research method on a panel this weekend and how she spent 2 years lying on the couch watching musicals over and over to record the steps exactly right; how Doris Day's toothy smile began to haunt her; how ethereal Fred Astaire danced and how seamlessly he partnered Ginger Rogers and about how he had painstakingly rehearsed for each movie. And I knew this was a book for me; I needed this information alone. I hunted it out in the dealer's room and accidentally bought myself this copy, hardcover, in a box and freshly signed by Connie earlier in the morning. I'd only been anxious to get my hands on it to read immediately. The rest was bonus.
Well, the book is fantastic. I'm a movie buff, especially old movies and especially especially musicals. I absolutely loved the characters' constant quotes from movies instead of thinking up their own dialogue and the constant stream of imagery that is snippets from movies. A large percentage of the book is a mashup from all kinds of movies spanning about the now of when the book was written (published in 1994) to all the way back to the b&ws. It's a real blast if you're a fan of the movies.
The plot? There is one, yes. I was interested to hear Connie Willis talk about her science fiction and how she is sometimes labelled as not science fictional enough. She talked about how her science fictional elements are in the background with the plot, often character driven/relationship focussed, in the foreground. I've been thinking about that a lot since she said it. It's not a new idea to me, it's not anything we haven't covered on Galactic Suburbia before. But it's gotten me thinking all the same. It seems to me, that the kind of story I see as mature is one that takes a "what if" and then builds a world around that. I'm interested in how a world would be once you extrapolate from the "what if". When a story focusses just on the science fictional element, to me it feels like an undeveloped one, like the idea of "what if" was all that was of interest and the taking it somewhere was too hard. It's often called "soft science fiction" to focus on people or relationships within a science fictional context and maybe I'm showing my female POV but I really am interested in how people would live within the "what if". I'm interested in what would be different about people's lives with the change in technology or shift in history or political beliefs.
As Connie says, isn't the point of it all love?
Anyway, the plot. Hollywood in the future has taken itself to the ultimate endpoint. Why bother making new movies when you can remake old ones? Why bother dealing with warm bodies when you can pick up onscreen images of actors from yesteryear and remake them in movies where the plots already worked and the stories were already great? Now Hollywood is made up of comp people who can edit and reedit and tweak and change movies to whatever the execs want. Kinda interesting - a bit like seeing a play performed with different actors. River Phoenix plays Cary Grant etc.
Tom wants to be a movie director but instead is stuck hacking and slashing movies to whatever he's asked to do, pasting faces of his bosses new girlfriend into the movies or removing evidence of offending Addictive Substances or whatever to pay for his chooch and rent. Basically he's selling his soul and has lost all belief in the movies. That is until he meets Alis, whom he thinks is just another face and warm blooded wannabe but who actually wants to dance in the movies, for real, with Fred Astaire. Tom knows it's impossible but is captivated by her and her pursuit of her dream no matter what.
It's a glorious tribute to the movies and also a harsh commentary on Hollywood. It's funny and nostalgic and cutting all at the same time. And I read it in a day and a half.
It was with this in mind that I grabbed a copy of Fire Watch, a limited edition of this Nebula and Hugo winning novelette was printed by WSFA Press this weekend for Capclave. I knew going in it was a WWII story but my respect for Willis was such that I decided to go in anyway. Fire Watch is Willis' first WWII story, originally published in 1982, and in fact eventually leads the way round to her new two volume novel Blackout and All Clear. I had no intention of reading these new books when they were released this year because of my lack of interest in WWII but now I will of course be making my way there.
In Fire Watch, Bartholomew is sent back to St Paul's during the Blitz to take his history practicum. In his time, historians are sent back via time machine to witness history as it happened. Except, Bartholomew wasn't specialising in London during the Blitz and doesn't know what exactly the practicum will require of him. He is sent to St Paul's to be part of the Fire Watch - a group of ordinary people standing watch on top of St Paul's Cathedral and putting out fires from the German's bombs each night of the Blitz hoping to save St Paul's.
Fire Watch is an engrossing read. Willis paints such a clear picture of both London and those staying to protect the city from the bombs. We follow Bartholomew as he tries to figure out friend from foe and the point of his being here at this time. Is he to save St Paul's? Can he save St Paul's? Just what is he to learn from this adventure?
I loved this book because whilst it's about war and set in wartime, what it's really about is the people. Willis has a deep respect for the average person on the street and the everyday hero. She creates such rich characters who you want to believe in and the reward is an engrossing read which demands you bring along tissues.
I can't ever remember not being a Wil Wheaton fan. And when I think about it, I guess he's the reason I became a fan of the Star Trek franchise. See I'd already seen episodes of Star Trek The Next Generation at the video store but thought the front cover showed a really cheesy show - girls with CFM boots, some guy with a shiny headband over his eyes, WTF 80s hairdoes. A cheesy scifi show that I was not interested in. (And yeah, sure, the show *is* totally cheesy but that's not the point of this story.) But then, one day, I saw the movie Stand By Me and thought the young actor who played Geordie was AWESOME! And instantly, I needed to see everything else that he was in, which as it turned out meant discovering ST:TNG. I don't think I saw the early seasons til well after the show finished but I definitely got my fair share of Wesley Crusher in that silver jumpsuit.
Wesley off course went off to Star Fleet Academy and then off with the creepy Traveller dude to do ... um, not really sure? And I remained a big fan of Star Trek, in all flavours. And wondered whatever happened to Wil Wheaton. Until one day, a few years ago now, I discovered that Wil Wheaton had a blog - back when it used to be called something about 50 000 monkeys and a typewriter. And I admit, I started reading it because it was *Wil Wheaton*. But it turned out that Wil Wheaton the man is actually a truly awesome geek - funny, up to speed with what's going on, an old round nice guy, a loving husband and father and an interesting blogger. And I got addicted to reading his blog just like I read hundreds of others. I think when I first tuned in, his cat was very sick.
Which neatly segues into this book review. Wil Wheaton started writing books. And he discovered that he had a bit of a following on the internet - enough of a following that people bought his books in decent numbers and wanted to read more. I sadly didn't grab copies of Just a Geek and Dancing Barefoot but they seemed to get really good reviews. And then I think he did Happiest Days of Our Lives and again I thought about buying a copy but didn't because it was a collection of his blog posts, which I knew I'd already read. But when Subterranean Press announced a special limited edition hardback of Happiest Days of Our Lives, I thought, you know, it's time to grab one. And I rushed to preorder because I didn't want to miss out. And then the book didn't come. And it didn't come. And it didn't come. And I hadn't been charged for it so I started to worry I wasn't going to get one. And every now and then I'd check back on the Subterranean Press website to check that it hadn't yet been released.
And then it arrived! And it was beautifully wrapped in clear plastic and bubblewrap. It arrived in the mail just as I was heading off to Canberra so I grabbed it for plane reading. And I read slowly, but I inhaled that book on the first half of the flight. I'd read most of the blog posts but not all of them. Wheaton has added a little introduction to each piece talking about why it was in the book or what had spurred him to write it in the first place. And it was just so joyous to read. He speaks fondly of his days on ST:TNG. He speaks of those times with bittersweet regret of them being over, even though he was too young to fit in with the rest of the adults or to really appreciate it all. My favourite pieces are about the con circuit - the way he started doing them as a young actor and all the various highlights and lowlights as well as how much he enjoys going to cons now as a fan - and also when he talks about his everyday life with his family. The book portrays a guy who is "one of us", just another geek gamer and scifi fan. He's the kind of guy you'd enjoy having a drink with at the bar, or take some beers at a salad to his place for a BBQ, I suspect. And I admit it, I cried when I reread the piece about his sick cat.
Interestingly, this was not actually the first book of Wheaton's I ended up buying. In the waiting for Happiest Days of Our Lives to come out, I bought Wheaton's next work Memories of the Future, Volume 1 - a book that he is self publishing after a column he was writing about his rewatching the first season of ST:TNG was pulled. What book would be better suited for this fan than one of Wil Wheaton sniping at the cheesiness that was season 1 of the series that he was in?
But I actually have not yet read it - I bought it and then tuned into his promotional podcast, Memories of the FutureCast in which he reads excerpts from the book, one episode per podcast episode and then talks off on tangents and around the material. And I discovered what a great medium the podcast can be, particularly for trained performers who can talk off the cuff. He is funny, snarky, quick and also eclectic. He wanders off the point, mutters to himself, and answers back, and is completely entertaining. And he also showed how cleverly technology can be used to add rather than detract from the paper book. I'm not really someone who enjoys being read to so initially I didn't think that I would like the podcast, and bought the book instead. But I must have subscribed at some point and one day found myself on a plane trip that was delayed and then became an arduous journey home and I decided to listen to these on a whim, and found a relaxing, entertaining and enjoyable companion to an otherwise truly hideous experience.
I am now listening to Radio Free Burrito, another podcast of his, in which he is currently reading excerpts from Happiest Days of Our Lives and I highly recommend checking them out and buying your own copy of the book.
The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animalsby Ann and Jeff Vandermeer
Tachyon Publications (2010)
I was extremely excited when I first heard about this book and even more excited when I received a review copy in the mail. I've already raved about the book on our podcast (Galactica Suburbia, Episode 2). You see, it's a book that I felt desperately needed to be written - if we are to have more Jews in fantasy, we *must* be able to know what foods we can serve them at great celebratory banquets and during quick stops at random inns along the long journey of schlepping to go get the thing from the ganif (thief). Additionally, this book will serve as a really useful guide for my friends when they are planning to invite me to a dinner where they plan to cook an imaginary animal. No more worrying about whether or not I will eat the, uh ...slow roasted manticore or spicy phoenix curry or bbq dragon spare ribs. What's more, there is no better time to review this book than at Pesach - a time when Jews traditionally are obsessed with what foods they can and can't eat.
The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals is a pocket-sized book cataloguing a variety of imaginary creatures and uses dialogue between Ann and Jeff's evil alter ego, The Evil Monkey, to discuss which animals would be kosher. These discussion are nostalgically reminiscent of various conversations I might have participated in in religious class at school and are also a nod to the kind of rabbinical debates that lead to schools of thought on Jewish laws (like, but in tongue and cheek).
It's a really fun book and made me laugh a lot. I especially enjoyed bits that stretched the concept to include questions like, "can I marry a mermaid?" Sadly though, there is no entry for unicorn - the first creature I of course looked up (my guess is that unicorns would not be kosher, for obvious reasons). But you know, as per the blurb on the front from Bubbe “What use is this? If ever I were to cook one of these, you know you wouldn’t eat it anyway.” Which, is actually true because I'm a vegetarian.
And right now, to mark the release of the book, Tachyon Publications is asking for your kosher cryptozoological recipes:
Do you make a mean chupacabra challah? Are you renowned for your Loch Ness latkes? We want your recipes!
Of course we won’t take your recipes and give you nothing in return. We’ve got prizes, bubala. On April 30 We’ll select the five best recipes and send their authors signed copies of The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals.
When you’re ready, send your recipe to firstname.lastname@example.org